Do You Worry That You’re A Burden?: 5 Tips for Learning How to Accept Help
“I don’t want to bother anybody.”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
“I should be able to do it myself.”
We are currently experiencing many layers of loss and overwhelm. For most of us, it’s a loss of normalcy in general: we don’t have the activities or the routines we’re used to. We may be feeling stretched by new work demands and remote school protocols. For some of us, this stress may also be getting multiplied by loss of work or income.
All of these stressors may be manifesting into a “system overload” -- no matter what each of our unique circumstances are, many of us may be feeling like we don’t have enough time, resources, or emotional bandwidth to manage or get everything done that we would usually be able to do by ourselves.
And perhaps doing things by ourselves is the only way we know how. We may prize being self-sufficient, and as Americans, we’re taught to strive to be. Even if someone offered to help us, we might turn it down for fear of burdening them. And everyone has so much on their plate right now, we’d hate to add to anyone else’s stack of things to do.
However, if we can start to let go of thoughts of being a burden or needing to do everything ourselves, and work to mindfully accept and offer different forms of support, it may help us get through this time with more grace.
So, even though it may feel really difficult, this might be a good time to learn how to ask for and accept help from our support systems, if we are fortunate enough to have them, or to create new support systems.
So how do we go about asking for help, and then how do we learn to accept it?
1. Remind yourself it’s not a personal failure if you don’t have ________ right now (fill in the blank: income, energy, motivation, or all of the above). If you notice feelings of self-condemnation or shame coming up, remind yourself that we are living through a global disaster, one that our own country has effectively mismanaged, and that this is not on you. If you have a kneejerk reaction to someone who offers to help you—get curious and examine it. Is it coming out of a place of shame or self-judgment?
2. Consider your ecosystem. It’s not individual people who are failing right now. It’s our systems, and we likely need to create our own systems to feel our best and do what we need to do. If you don’t have friends or family around you, think of other people who you could begin to create community with. Maybe it’s neighbors or coworkers. Start a reciprocal relationship by offering to help them if you see an opportunity. Look for ways to live more interdependently, whether it’s with neighbors, friends, other parents, or family members.
3. Be specific. Communicate about what you really need, and your limits. Sometimes well-intentioned folks offer help, but it’s not what we need. Recently, my preschooler asked me if she could help me fold laundry. While I appreciated the thought, I knew that her “helping” fold would make the job take twice as long. I thanked her for offering to help, and asked her to carry her folded clothes to her room. My point? You don’t have to accept help that’s not helpful to you specifically. Show appreciation and offer something else that would actually be helpful to you! (Another example: if a friend offers to come over and help you with a project, but you know you’re too emotionally exhausted to talk, you can still accept their help while telling them you plan to have a podcast or music on in the background while you work. Thinking about these types of compromises in advance can be especially helpful if you’re managing anxiety and/or depression, are grieving, or are feeling overwhelmed.)
4. Acknowledge complex feelings. If it’s a friend or family member who is offering to help you, whether with a living situation, finances, or childcare, it can bring up a lot of emotions. Depending on your history with that person, offerings may also have strings attached that are specific to your relationship. If you find yourself in this situation, consider the help, consider the attached strings, and weigh the costs and benefits of accepting it or not. Asking for or accepting help may bring up other unexpected emotions. Journal or talk those emotions through with a close friend, partner, or therapist. Ultimately, if the help is not helping, or is bringing up too many emotions to deal with on top of everything else, change strategies and don’t beat yourself up!
5. Think of how you would want someone else to feel about accepting help from you. My hope would be that if my friends or family needed anything, that they would be able to know and trust that their support system (of which I am a part) is there and ready to support them. Similarly, if a neighbor or person at the grocery store needed help carrying something, I would hope they would let me help them. Try to think of yourself in the same way, and don’t expect yourself to do this by yourself. If people are offering help, trust that they wouldn’t offer it if they didn’t want to, or if it was an imposition on them.
When we’re not at our best, it can be difficult to let ourselves be around people and to let them see that we are struggling. I see this all the time in the mental health field— when people call looking for a therapist, they often mention that they have been struggling but don’t want to be a burden on their friends and family. We often create obstacles for ourselves when it comes to asking for or accepting help. Many of us can harbor an internalized belief that needing help is a weakness or that we’re burdening people (sometimes learned in childhood). The truth is, many of our loved ones (whether biological or chosen) are often willing to support us, if we learn how to let them.